Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review of the Year - 2008

It's reached that time of year again where we look back on what we've enjoyed, and with over 100 productions to choose from we shouldn't be short of a few highlights...

Back in May we really enjoyed "The Drawer Boy" but I commented that 'by next week it will probably be a vague memory of having had an enjoyable night at the theatre' - yet I was completely wrong and months later it is still vivid in my memory. Beautifully written and directed I think it was probably my favourite play of the year - Brian Pettifer, Benny Young and Brian Ferguson were simply phenomenal and delivered three of the best male performances we saw this year.

Other male acting highlights included the masterful Will Lyman in "The Patriot Act" and Stephen Hudson's breathtaking performance in "Zero".

Another show that made a big impression early in the year was Borderline's production of D C Jackson's "The Wall" - a beautifully observed comedy of teenage angst. It also gave us one of the best female performances of the year from Kirstin McLean.

Indira Varma's performance in "Twelfth Night" was another highlight - as was Cora Bissett in the delightful"Midsummer [A Play with Songs]" which proved to be our most out-and-out enjoyable show this year.

But many of this year's high points can't exactly be called 'enjoyable' due to their content. Sweetscar's production of Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychosis" was an unforgettable experience and Waldorf raved about "Deep Cut" for which I couldn't get a ticket. But I only have myself to blame for missing another show which she considers to be her favourite show of the year - "Amada".

There have been many shows that contained moments of theatrical magic that will be burned into our memories for years to come - the final moments of "Restitution", the 'Munchkin Strike' segment of "Wicked Christmas 3" and the incredibly powerful moments in "The Caravan". We've also been left with very fond memories of "Sunshine on Leith", "Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off" and "Heer Ranjha (Retold)".

But if we are talking about sheer entertainment value there isn't any doubt about my highlight of the year, and to be honest I'll consider myself hugely fortunate if I ever have more fun in a theatre than I did at "An Audience with Brian Blessed".

And yet, even as 2008 slips away, we've already got high hopes for 2009.

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"Hamlet" - December 2008

It's been a couple of weeks since we didn't see David Tennant in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet (if you've been living on the moon he's got a bad back and any rumours that he went into hiding to avoid us are just pure speculation). So did a matryoshka doll-like cascade of understudies harm the production when it moved to the Ivor Novello Theatre?

Just to clear things up, so there's no confusion, Hamlet was played by Laertes, Laertes was played by Guildenstern, Guildenstern was played by Lucianus (the poisoner in the play) and Lucianus was played by Fortinbras. Hope that's nice and clear.

What we did get was a very polished production (literally in the case of the set) despite the re-arrangement of cast. Patrick Stewart as a very statesman like Claudius was magnificent and Edward Bennett stepping into Hamlet's jeans/tux (no doublets and hoses here) certainly didn't cause the production to be any less enjoyable. At his best when interacting with others as a slightly whiny brat; his verbal bullying of Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) was a delight.

The interplay between Polonious, Ophelia (Mariah Gale) and Laertes (Tom Davey) as fatherly advice is dispensed was also wonderfully done. For the second time in two days I found myself laughing out loud at a production of Shakespeare.

In a tragedy it's obviously not all laughs. Penny Downie as Gertrude developed as the production went on from a rather unsympathetic woman who'd hurriedly re-married in order to maintain her position to a woman genuinely torn between her new husband, her son and her grief for the old.

Was it perfect - no probably not. The opening scene with the guards using the highly reflective floor to bounce their lights off to illuminate the faces of their compatriots instead of using the stage lighting should have worked well, but the constant switching between faces ended up just being irritating. The mirrored backdrop was put to particularly good effect in 2 scenes, although the latter of those was so nicely done that I did spend the next 15 minutes wondering quite how they'd done it, thus distracting me from the main event. But then I'm a geek at heart. However it did have the best use of a slinky in dramatic arts this year.

I sat through a year of Hamlet at school. Even now I could probably rhyme off a dozen quotes to scatter through an essay on the subject. But did I enjoy studying it? Hell no. Now I don't know how much of that was due to me being 16 or having the world's worst English teacher. But having now seen Shakespeare performed in a number of quality productions I firmly believe that we did it no service by the way I was taught it in school. I just hope it's taught a little better now.

Hamlet continues its sold out run until January 10.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz. Used with permission.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

"The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe" - December 2008

For our final show of 2008 we headed through to Edinburgh for the Lyceum's adaptation of CS Lewis' novel. And with Christmas being a time for family and all that we brought a few members of the extended Muppet family along with us - all of whom seemed to greatly enjoy the afternoon.

Opening with a fantastic set piece that sees the children evacuated from the city, through clever direction and lighting we follow their train journey through to their arrival at their temporary home. And even though entirely unspoken, the performances are so well crafted that they serve as a good introduction to each of the characters.

The four children are played by Scott Hoatson (Peter), Jenny Hulse (Susan), Neil Thomas (Edmund) and Amy McAllister (Lucy) who despite the inherent difficulties in playing characters obviously younger than their years, do an excellent job of bringing them life. As the White Witch, Meg Fraser provides just the right level of threat while Daniel Williams makes for an impressive Aslan and the rest of the cast provide strong support.

With a considerable younger contingent in the audience it's clearly an advantage to limit the run time (just over two hours including an interval) but as a result the story does seem somewhat rushed, and characters don't always get sufficient stage time to really make the impact they should - particularly Aslan, Peter & Susan.

While the show perhaps lacks the sparkle to make it truly memorable, that shouldn't take away from what is an effectively told tale that kept the audience enthralled throughout.

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe runs at the Lyceum until 3rd January.
Image by Alan McCredie used with permission

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Now Booking for Spring 2009

Over the next couple of weeks there will of course be lots of running around and last minute Christmas shopping (and then the January sales), but there will also no doubt be the quiet days spent recovering from over-indulgence. And it's a great opportunity to catch up on all those Spring programmes for the theatres that have been dropping through the letterbox amongst the Christmas cards. Here's our round up of our current plans for the first half of 2009...

The Citizens' was one of the first theatres to launch their programme and we've quickly booked up for a couple of shows and we plan on booking a few more once we have a better idea of our other plans. "Sub Rosa" from Fire Exit & the Citizens is a site specific piece which will promenade around backstage areas in the Citz and is 'not for the squeamish' (review now posted) and we've also booked for Tamasha's Bollywood style take on "Wuthering Heights" (review now posted). At the moment we don't plan on seeing "Educating Rita" but that may change once casting is announced (review now posted), and we'll need to give a bit more thought before deciding on their production of Ibsen's "Ghosts". We'll have already seen the National Theatre of Scotland & Donmar Warehouse's "Be Near Me" before it reaches the Citz (review now posted) and we enjoyed NLP's "Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim" at Cumbernauld earlier this year. But we do plan to book for the Citizens Community Company's "My Clydeside Valentine" (review now posted) and the Young Company's "Citizen Y" nearer the time (review now posted).

As well as "Be Near Me" the National Theatre of Scotland has also grabbed our attention with the intriguing "Dolls" based on a Japanese film at the Tramway at the end of January (review now posted).

In 2008 the Tron's programming really worked for us, and their Spring 2009 shows look like maintaining our interest. We've booked up for Irish 'Troubles' set thriller "Defender of the Faith" (review now posted), Tam Dean Burn in "Year of the Horse" (review now posted) and we'll also catch a couple of shows we missed at the Fringe in "The Tailor of Inverness" (review now posted) and "The Angel & The Woodcutter" (review now posted). I'm also quite keen to see "Do I Mean Anything To You Or Am I Just Passing By?" but it could prove tricky to fit in.

Glasgow's Theatre Royal has lured us back with the touring production of "Cabaret" but in truth the attraction is that it stars Sam Barks who was our household's favourite in the BBC's Search-for-Nancy show (review now posted).

Over in Edinburgh at the Lyceum they have several shows of interest but their ticket prices make us wary of taking a punt on shows in advance of seeing a positive review or cast information. However if flexi-time permits I may be tempted to give a midweek matinee a go on my own for "The Mystery of Irma Vep" and "Copenhagen" as Waldorf isn't particularly keen.

In May we're back down to London for "Madame De Sade" starring Judi Dench (review now posted) and "Oliver" with Rowan Atkinson and the Search-for-Nancy winner. We'll also hope to fill a Saturday night slot that weekend with something that catches our eye in the next few months.

One other show we'll definitely be booking up for when tour dates are published is Borderline's production of DC Jackson's "The Ducky" ( review now posted )- a follow up to 2008's award winning "The Wall".

And while we are still working out the best way to take up Bluedog's challenge of giving opera a chance (without breaking the bank), we're dipping our toes in with this year's "Five:15" from Scottish Opera - a performance of five new fifteen minute operas (review now posted).

We haven't seen details of the Traverse programme yet, and we'll hopefully find some shows to see at Cumbernauld Theatre, and we will update this post with details when we get them. And I'll be making a renewed effort to get along regularly to Oran Mor's 'A Play, A Pie & A Pint' lunchtime series.

And as always, we're happy to hear about any other shows we haven't spotted that you think we might enjoy.

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"Sunshine on Leith" - December 2008

All last year I was skeptical about the whole concept of Dundee Rep's musical based on the songs of The Proclaimers - it just seemed too daft to work. Even when the glowing reviews were pouring in and the show received a number of CATS nominations I couldn't quite bring myself to believe it. So when the show was revived for a 2008/2009 tour we had to book up to see for ourselves if we had written it off unfairly. We had.

"Sunshine on Leith" is in every sense 'the real deal'. It's a grand, epic West End style musical , but with a distinctively Scottish flavour. Writer Stephen Greenhorn has managed to effectively weave the songs into a coherent story of three couples, and not only do they work as the stories of the individuals, he has also managed to retain some of the social and political themes inherent in the songs.

The six central characters are all brought vividly to life and the audience is quickly emotionally invested thanks to a very strong cast. As parents Rab and Jean, John Buick and Anne Louise Ross really pluck those heartstrings - particularly with Ross's rendition of "Sunshine on Leith". Gail Watson gets the chance to shine vocally as daughter Liz while Kevin Lennon gives a fine acting performance as her boyfriend Ally.

However, the couple the audience are pulling for most are son Davy (Keith Fleming) and girlfriend Yvonne (Denise Hoey). They have a tremendous chemistry on stage, combined with impressive vocals and beautifully nuanced portrayals of their characters. But it isn't just the six leads that make the show work - there is a massive contribution from a substantial ensemble who give the show its scale, and many get their own memorable moments along the way. And James Brining's direction keeps the action moving along and despite a run time of 2 hours 40 minutes the show simply flies in.

Sadly we did have a fairly significant problem with the sound levels and while it didn't spoil the show, it certainly hampered our experience. We were centrally located in row H of the stalls and in the more upbeat group numbers many of the vocals were in danger of being drowned out by the band to the extent that it was impossible to pick out lyrics - and it wasn't down to our west-coast ears. And disappointingly, on speaking to friends who had seen the show a week previously they had encountered the same problem. As a result we recommend picking up the cast recording CD at the performance for a bargain £10 - it gives you the opportunity to appreciate the lyrics you missed first time round. It's also just a brilliant set of songs and hasn't been out of our CD player since we got home.

Sunshine on Leith is a brilliantly entertaining piece of theatre, and even on a matinee performance managed to get the diverse audience suitably enthused. On leaving the show we overheard a group of teenagers who had clearly loved the show including one who hadn't wanted to come but thought it was "really brilliant" and another group who left singing the songs all the way down the road. And while the midweek matinee was an easier option for us, part of me does wonder if we missed out on what must be a pretty incredible Friday or Saturday night atmosphere.

Unfortunately the production may suffer from one of the issues raised within the show. While its Scottishness is a hugely integral part of its charm and heart, it is also what may limit its long term viability. It certainly has the quality in writing and cast that it could potentially command a wide audience around the UK, but I'm not quite sure Londoners are ready to take it to their hearts. It will certainly be interesting to see how the audience responds when the tour dips its toes south of the border with a short run in Coventry.

If you missed out on seeing it last year, don't make the same mistake again. Leave your skepticism behind and give it a chance - I find it hard to believe anyone leaves the theatre disappointed.

Sunshine on Leith runs at the Festival theatre, Edinburgh until 3rd January 2009 and then tours to Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow before finishing in Coventry at the end of February.

Image by Douglas McBride used with permission

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Friday, December 19, 2008

"Twelfth Night" - December 2008

It was a fortunate accident that saw us at "Twelfth Night" as part of the Donmar's West End Season. When we managed to get tickets for "Hamlet" on the Monday night it just so happened that our trip coincided with a Sunday performance of "Twelfth Night" - and there were still tickets available.

And our luck held up as we were rewarded with a simply wonderful piece of theatre - enthralling from start to finish with a pace that never flags. With gorgeous sets and costumes it just screams quality, and most importantly the cast live up to all expectations. While Derek Jacobi is very much the face of this production, Malvolio is a fairly peripheral character and as a result its heart and soul lie elsewhere. Yes, he delivers some wonderful comedic moments but these are more a series of cameo set pieces than a truly substantial performance.

Indeed I suspect in 20 years time I may recall this performance as being the first time I saw Dame Indira Varma on stage, before wondering if that was the one that had Derek Jacobi in it as well. Varma is a joy to watch and even from the very back of the stalls her performance was beautifully expressive without losing any subtlety. Victoria Hamilton also excels and her scenes with Varma and Mark Bonnar's Orsino are played to comic perfection; while Samantha Spiro's Maria is delightfully impish as she orchestrates Malvolio's comeuppance. The male cast members all give sterling performances with Ron Cook's Lord Toby a highlight along with Jacobi, but in truth the ladies have the plaudits sewn up here.

Magnificent.

Twelfth Night runs at Wyndham's Theatre, London until 7 March 2009
Image by Hugo Glendinning used with permission.

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Handel's Messiah - December 2008

Okay, so we've strayed away from our usual territory but indulge us a little... But first it seems only fair to confess that the whole Messiah thing was really just an added extra for us. We had discussed some time ago when watching the Last Night of the Proms on TV that we'd quite like to see something at the Royal Albert Hall someday, so when we had a free evening on our London trip that coincided with this performance it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up - particularly when we could get decent-ish tickets for £14.50 and a tour of the venue costs £8!


Now of course given that we know even less about classical music than we do about theatre, we're in no position to comment on the quality of the playing or the singing (especially as we were seated side-on to the soloists and beside some of the choir), so lets just leave it that we were perfectly happy with the performances from all involved. For the record, details of the choirs performing along with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra can be found on the Raymond Gubbay website.

But our visit was really about the venue and it really is something to behold. Yes, if you look at the detail closely enough it's in need of some attention but the scale and atmosphere in the place is truly phenomenal. I'm not sure that we would rush back for another concert, but given the opportunity to see something theatrical staged here I think we could definitely be persuaded to make the effort if we could combine it with other shows in London over a weekend. We don't quite think "The King & I" will be enough to lure us back but the Royal Albert Hall is now firmly somewhere whose listings we will keep a close eye on.

And that's despite the fact that even a classical concert at such a venue doesn't appear to be immune from morons in the audience - who required a ticking off from Waldorf at the start of the second part of the performance. They then continued to chat to such an extent that rather than my usual ploy of escorting Waldorf to the exit quickly at the end of the show for fear of further 'incident', I tapped them on the shoulder myself and gave them a mouthful. I mean really, what is the point of clapping at the end of a show that you've shown no respect for throughout the performance - despite the fact that some of the choir were sitting literally two feet away.

Image by... em... us. Used with permission

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"Framed" - December 2008

We'd booked up for "Framed" by Visible Fictions because of its concept of Scotland's youth having something to say, and with plenty of previous positive experiences with theatre involving young people, we were happy to give this a go - particularly at £4 a ticket. But perhaps that should have been a warning sign that things were not quite as they at first seemed.

Digging a little deeper prior to the show it became clear from Visible Fictions' website that the production was possibly more about developing the young people involved than about producing a piece of theatre for public consumption (with the Prince's Trust Scotland being involved). In truth we debated whether or not we should be posting comment on it but felt the decision had to be made prior to seeing the show, and on the basis that the Tramway website in particular was promoting the show strongly, we felt it demanded the same attention we would give any production seeking an audience - and as always, we don't make any allowances for age, experience etc - all performances are considered in the same way as if they were professional.

At the performance it fairly quickly became clear that we wouldn't be seeing a constructed narrative with central themes or issues to raise - this was very much a show made up of individuals each telling elements of their own (and possibly their own) stories. Yes, Visible Fictions have added an impressive technical polish and some very effective visuals but the same effort didn't appear to have been expended on focusing the content.

While there are some powerful moments, the applause at the end seemed perhaps more supportive than appreciative. This shouldn't detract from what are no doubt significant individual achievements from those participating in reaching a level of confidence where they could perform - but I do think it raises questions as to whether they should really have been exposed to the wider public as opposed to an invited audience. This is clearly a valuable project but without further development and focus it runs the risk of being unfair on both its audience and participants.

Framed has now completed its run at the Tramway
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Wicked Christmas 3" - December 2008

While all around, theatres invoke the festive spirit and preach goodwill to all with family friendly shows full of cheer, we knew we could rely on the Citizens Community Company's "Wicked Christmas 3" to deliver a sharper glance at our modern Christmas.


This year's show contains twelve short acts in a variety of styles and tones - from an amusing group song to hard hitting looks at exclusion and loss. There will always be hits and misses in such a show, but often that's more to do with personal taste than any lack in quality. And while neither of us were particularly taken by the 'Tree of Life' segment this was in part due to the decision to thread it throughout the evening rather than perform it as a single piece.

Anne Marie McLeod's "The Poor Philosopher" gave us a sombre look at the commercialisation of Christmas from someone on the outside and an image that will haunt my remaining Christmas shopping trips, while Kathleen Harrison's tale of family grief brought a lump to even a cynical throat. But for sheer entertainment Neil Bratchpiece's "The Wee Man v Santa" and "Munchkin Strike" are hard to beat. The Glasgow 'ned' is in danger of being overexposed these days, but when he's as well written and delivered as this it's always going to hit the target in home territory. But in the "Munchkin Strike" he gives us something that is little short of genius and provided one of the funniest five minutes I've had in a theatre this year - worth the ticket price alone. Other particular favourites of Waldorf were Patricia Preston's "Angela's Story" and Rena Hood's nostalgic "Christmas Adventure".

For those theatre addicts like us who don't really do the whole Panto thing this is a great way to stave off withdrawal symptoms with an entertaining and thoughtful evening.

Wicked Christmas 3 runs at the Citizens until Saturday 13th December
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

"Spectacular" - December 2008

It's the morning after our visit to Forced Entertainment's "Spectacular" at the Tramway, and Normally by now we'd have had our thoughts on the show posted several hours ago. But there's something different going on with this one. And Normally we'll have spent a fair bit of time comparing our thoughts on a show before one of us will type something up, but tonight we only exchanged a couple of sentences before realising that we were singing from the same hymnsheet. Maybe it was down to the rather odd ten minutes we spent before the show in the Tramway's exhibition space that made it different... or maybe it was the fact that "Spectacular" has provoked the worst reaction we've ever had to a show - including our experience with "Waiting for Godot".

And the evening had such promise - the blurb for the show had really grabbed my interest -
A lone performer takes to the stage, explaining that the show we're watching is somehow different tonight. The atmosphere is different, his entrance was off, the lights are wrong, some scenery is missing, some performers are absent. The tone is all wrong. Things are somehow falling to pieces, or maybe things are just now falling into place. The audience reaction, our protagonist says, is not quite what he expected, not quite what he's used to. Perhaps the fact he is dressed as a skeleton has something to do with it.

And although I'd avoided reading reviews I'd seen enough 'stars' plastered over the Tramway walls to have my expectations raised. And let me tell you, it's difficult as a theatre blogger to come home and write up your thoughts when you know they are going to be overwhelmingly negative - especially when you know there are very positive reviews of the show by professional critics. And that's when the doubts can start to creep in. Am I the right person to be writing about this show? Or should I leave it to one of the theatre students that seemed to make up half the audience to give their thoughts instead? In admitting my dislike for the work am I showing a lack of understanding on my part? Will I be the little boy shouting from the crowd or will I be the unclothed King?

Normally about this time in a 'review', even one of a show we haven't enjoyed, I'd try and find something positive to say about it - perhaps a performance, or the lighting, or set. I've tried hard and I'm afraid I really can't - although Waldorf has just said she liked the curtains. Right now I'm thinking that there was perhaps, somewhere at the beginning of the process that brought this piece to the stage, a neat gem of an idea about the thoughts that go through an actor's head whilst on stage but it's been drowned out by everything else that the production has tried to attach to the concept.

And at this bit of our 'review' I'm thinking about how far I can go. I'm thinking of describing the central character as the bastard son of Jimmy Carr & 'David Brent' but I doubt Waldorf will let me. Now I'm recalling that there were a couple of moments in the show where I felt something was about to change, moments of anticipation that all the tedious (and only partly successful) audience manipulation would be revealed as just the foundation for something more. And then the sickening disappointment as I realise there isn't anything 'more' - just more.

Normally it would never cross my mind to leave during a performance (we didn't but it was a close call).

And then, just at the end of a show, regardless of how little I've enjoyed it I will Normally applaud out of respect for the effort of those involved. Normally.

Spectacular runs at the Tramway until Saturday 6th December
Image by Hugo Glendinning used with permission

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Otter Pie" - December 2008

Theatre company Fish & Game have put together an affectionate (well most of the time anyway) take on classic Scottish novel "Sunset Song" (okay, I've never read it but Wiki was my friend). While the play's moments of absurdity won't be to everyone's taste, and you probably need to be in the right mood to appreciate it, as time went on I found any initial frustrations evaporating and I left with a smile on my face.

I'm keeping this pretty brief as I think much of the fun would be spoiled by knowing the details in advance. It feels very much like a show from the Edinburgh Fringe with a simple set and a playful approach to theatricality. At times it feels a little self-indulgent in the first half and some of the set pieces are stretched too far, but the pay-off as the 'performance' deteriorates makes up for any flaws. Helped by a strong cast the play successfully asks some pointed questions - both about how we live now and how we view the past.

With an extensive tour including some high profile venues "Otter Pie" is perhaps punching above its weight for a show that still feels a little thrown together. But for me that's the most exciting thing about the evening - finding a young company with the ambition, drive and ability to make it all happen. And tonight their efforts were rewarded with a Tramway venue filled with a very diverse audience - including a crowd of young theatregoers sitting near me who were genuinely enthusiastic about what they had just seen.

Otter Pie runs at the Tramway until Saturday 6th December and has sold out all performances.
Image by Robert Walton used with permission

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us" - November 2008

In the final play of the National Theatre of Scotland & Traverse's 'Debuts' season Paul Higgins has successfully created three fully rounded and engaging characters who have brought to life by three strong performances. The problem is, 'Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us' is a play with five characters - and the final two drain the play of much of the strength it would otherwise have had.

John Wark plays younger brother Patrick who has surprised the family by returning home from Seminary a week earlier than expected. It's a well pitched performance which effectively conveys both his character's intelligence and his ignorance of life in the real world. On his return he finds older brother Johnny (Ryan Fletcher) caught up in some bother and desperately trying to raise some cash in a hurry. Fletcher plays Johnny with just the right level of gallusness but with the underlying knowledge that his life is a disappointment. Higgins, Wark & Fletcher have created a believable dynamic between these two and it's responsible for many of the plays strongest moments. As sister Cath, Carmen Pieraccini shines brightest when she is alone, particularly in a delightful scene in candlelight, and throughout the play genuinely inhabits the body of someone with a painful skin irritation.

Unfortunately the depiction of the adult characters fails to match the high standard of the children. Susan Vidler's 'Mum' makes little impact and I found it difficult to envisage her as part of this family set-up. But for me the real problem lay with Gary Lewis's alcoholic 'Dad' who is a fraction too close to Rab C Nesbitt to be taken as seriously as the character should be - particularly once he utters a line dangerously close to Rab's catchphrase. As a result I'm concerned that many of the laughs that the performance generated in the audience were simply of the lets-laugh-at-the-west-coast-scum variety.

Now I have to be fair here and admit that we deprived ourselves of what could have been one of the play's most powerful scenes. We were struggling with the play so much by the interval that leaving was a genuine possibility, so script book in hand I flicked to near the end to decide if it was worth staying for. Sufficiently intrigued we stayed - but we had been spoiled for a revelation that was handled rather nicely.

Even John Tiffany's direction is frustrating with characters spending considerable periods of time in static positions - and as this is staged in the round it leaves sections of the audience seeing the back of character's heads for far too long.

But there are moments that show that Higgins has significant potential as a writer. The relationships between the three younger characters are thoroughly convincing and there are some interesting ideas in the play - the concept of good deeds as currency and the way the family look down on the inhabitants of nearby Stonebridge provided something worth further thought.

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us runs at the Traverse until Saturday 29th November
Image by Pete Dibdin used with permission.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

"4.48 Psychosis" - October 2008 (revisited)

We originally posted very brief thoughts about SweetScar, Tramway and "Cumbernauld Theatre's production of "4.48 Psychosis" back when we saw it at Cumbernauld Theatre at the end of October. As part of the impact of the production was the journey into the unknown we didn't want to lessen that by being too detailed in our comments. Hence we've delayed publishing this until its run finished, and as a result we're also going into a bit more detail than usual.

The first surprise of the evening was that instead of entering through the usual main doors of the theatre we were taken into its bowels in small groups, past the costumes for their upcoming panto and backstage. Where we were led into a pitch dark theatre by ushers wearing night vision goggles. We were then seated individually, and in splendid isolation with at least two seats between you and any other audience member. All the while the sounds of a streetscape assault your senses. Traffic passing, children laughing and playing, birds chirping. You struggled to get your eyes to adjust to the darkness but it was largely impenetrable, and your imagination started to play tricks as you tried and failed to rationalise the very indistinct shapes you (think) you could make out. Even when the performance started the lights came up only for brief periods and it took you time to completely piece together what you're seeing.

Sarah Kane's last work wasn't produced until after her death, and the script gives directors complete carte blanche as there are no character names just lines of dialogue that can be allocated completely freely to the undetermined number of cast members. Director Adrian Osmond cut through this potential tangle by having only one cast member visible on stage - Keith Macpherson. And even then the dialogue actually spoken by him is limited to a few lines near the very end. Instead a host of disembodied voices represent the hundreds of individuals who are affected by mental health issues or are involved in their treatment. The speakers were positioned so close to you that you were enveloped by the sound. I even had to double check that it was actually a recording and not someone standing over your shoulder.

Staged in the round you felt like a voyeur as the set is the studwork of a room which goes from completely minimalist to semi-furnished is some hugely impressive transitions performed again in complete blackness in which furniture and other items appear and disappear in very short periods of time. The technical team of Kirsty Mackay (Designer), Kenny MacLeod (Sound Designer) and Kai Fischer (Lighting Designer) have shown here how simple and well thought out design elements can elevate a production.

Although technically polished your full focus was on Macpherson's performance as he conveys a variety of emotions and frustrations in an incredibly vulnerable, physical and exposed performance. He becomes the physical representation of every one of the disparate voices you hear, whilst remaining an individual whose journey you follow to its end. It's a journey both in time, and through the progression of his mental illness. In an hour of theatre I don't think I've ever felt so exhausted simply watching. Osmond has produced an intense, and emotionally draining experience.

Sarah Kane's own personal experiences with the mental health system obviously influenced her writing, and her negative experiences of it as a patient are evident. However one of the most powerful parts for me was the disembodied voice of a young psychiatrist simply reading out the case notes of a patient she knew the system was failing.

A beautifully constructed production.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Heer Ranjha (Retold)" - November 2008

Ankur Productions have relocated a classic Punjabi folk tale to modern day Glasgow with a mix of Bollywood glamour, local patter and bags of style. Rather than a haphazard attempt to outline the tale, I think I'm safe enough in saying that it's a typical girl-meets-boy, family-don't-approve type scenario with added religious complications.

Despite impressive performances from Nalini Chetty as socialite Heer and Taqi Nazeer as the troubled Ranjha I found it difficult to buy into the early stages of the relationship, but once they are a couple I became suitably convinced. Indeed, the production is full of terrific performances with Amerjit Deu and Michael D'Cruze as Heer's father and uncle being highlights.

Shan Khan's script has plenty of humour but also addresses some of the issues facing Glasgow's increasingly multicultural young people and the generational divide found all communities. He and the cast also manage to create peripheral characters that ring true to the extent that you actually feel they exist outwith their contribution to Heer & Ranjha's tale.

The movement set pieces are incredibly well put together - the 'dust up' kitchen scene is quite a spectacle, Heer & Ranjha's 'dance' against the wall is stunningly beautiful, and the large scale dance sequences are impressive (helped by some wonderful costumes and music).

But there are problems with the production, some significant. While it didn't feel over long, it often felt slow - in part due to scene changes where any sense of urgency seemed entirely lacking but there also just seemed to be a general lack of tempo for the dialogue scenes. And while there's plenty of energy and passion displayed on stage it never seemed to break down the barriers and infect the audience to the extent that feet were tapping or heads nodding. That's partly due to the extensive width and depth of the stage area at the Tramway which combined with the rather sparse set results in a clinical feeling and keeps the audience one removed from the characters. I'm not sure how flexible the space at the Tramway is but if they could have staged this in-the-round I think it would have drawn the audience in to a much greater extent.

The production doesn't quite reach the heights it has the potential to, but it's certainly an entertaining piece of theatre with some magical moments. And unlike the similar tale of 'Romeo & Juliet' it didn't have me thinking 'Oh, get on with it and die already...'

Heer Ranjha (retold) runs at the Tramway until Sat 29th November
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Under My Skin" - November 2008

My visits to Oran Mor's "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" Autumn season haven't been as frequent as I would have liked, but of all the short blurbs they provide about the shows this was the one that had most grabbed my attention back in September - so I wasn't going to miss it. Written by Ali Muriel this co-production between Oran Mor and Paines Plough is set in a Glasgow morgue where a young medic is about to perform an illegal autopsy under duress - as a police officer with a vested interest looks on.

I can't remember the last time I was so simultaneously impressed and disappointed by a play. One one hand the scenes between the policeman and the rather animated corpse are brilliantly written and performed by John Kazek and Gabriel Quigley - producing some powerful moments and a surprisingly beautiful final scene. But the scenes between Kazek's Inspector and Martin McCormick's medic were a real let down for me, and I don't feel the acting was at fault. They appear to be written and directed to be played for laughs, but it's so over the top that it diminishes the impact of the scenes with Quigley's Shona. Had the bullied young medic character been replaced with an older doctor willingly helping out the Inspector as a favour then I think this might have been one of the most moving pieces I've seen this year. As it stands it's too uneven in tone to deliver the substantial blow to the gut that it has the potential to do.

I'm also not really convinced by the use of the 'haunting' music, but Muriel certainly deserves to be praised for giving an impressively accurate account of the forensic investigation of death by hanging, yet making the procedures sufficiently accessible for the audience to follow.

For those like me with a low tolerance for heavy handed humour the whole may prove unsatisfactory, but its moments of brilliance may haunt the memory of those who see it.

Under My Skin runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 25th November
Image by Leslie Black used with permission

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

"The Dogstone" / "Nasty, Brutish & Short" - November 2008

The second event in the National Theatre of Scotland's 'Debuts' season at the Traverse is a double bill of new plays directed by Dominic Hill. There's nothing like a fun night out at the theatre... and this is certainly nothing like a fun night out at the theatre...

Kenny Lindsay's "The Dogstone" is a two hander told in flashback comprising scenes that take place over a period of years between alcoholic father Danskin (Andy Gray) and his son Lorn (Scott Fletcher). Known for his comic performances, Gray may be seen as a surprise choice for the role, but after seeing glimpses of it in previous performances we've been very keen to see him in a darker role - and it was worth the wait. He's entirely convincing in the many elements of the character - doting father, unpleasant dunk and pathetic human being. And while Fletcher may be a newcomer to most, his assured performance came as no surprise to us having highlighted his potential in his student performances of 'Teechers' and 'The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet' in recent years. But I don't think even we expected to see him in such a commanding role on the Traverse main stage quite so soon. Yet he appears to be absolutely in his element here portraying the character between the ages of 8 and 17 and is impressively engaging when addressing the audience directly as the older Lorn.

However, despite the strong performances I'm not entirely convinced by the play. It just lacks a reason to exist - it's simply too bleak to offer much entertainment and offers little in the way of wider message. I'd be perfectly happy to read it in a collection of short stories but attending the theatre requires more effort on my part, and the reward here simply isn't enough - even as part of a double bill.

Which brings us to "Nasty, Brutish and Short" by Andy Duffy centering on troubled teenage couple Luke and Mary Jane (James Young & Ashley Smith) and Luke's older brother Jim (Martin Docherty). Like "The Dogstone" while the cast do well in bringing its intensity to life it's just not got a great deal to say for itself and seems to want to be unpleasant for the sake of being unpleasant. And it's hampered by a soundscape that's more irritating than anything else and a completely pointless and distracting set that leaves the cast performing in three inches of water. There are also a number of references that seemed so incongruous to the characters that I found myself frowning at them as I watched (Liberace, Schrodinger & Rod Stewart). Sadly there's just nothing here that you can't get from reading the papers or watching the news.

The Dogstone / Nasty, Brutish and Short have now completed their runs.
Image by Pete Dibdin used with permission.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

"The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer" - November 2008

Having missed this earlier in the year when it premiered at Oran Mor we were pleased to see it picked up by Retrograde for a short run at the Tron. Set in Glasgow's Merchant City in 1780, as told by the titular character Enoch Dalmellington, the tale takes place literally yards from the theatre - which adds something a little special to the piece.

Benny Young takes over the role in the revival of this one man show, and having enjoyed his performances recently in 'The Drawer Boy' and 'Six Acts of Love' we had high hopes for the evening. But while Young's characterisation as he inhabits the many participants in his tale is excellent, I'm afraid there were just too many stumbled lines to overlook - even for a first night performance (although not a Preview). Add in an unfortunate, but deftly handled, on-stage spillage and Mr Young was not having a good night - and his appearance at the curtain call suggested he had enjoyed the evening much less than the audience had. For despite its flaws this remained an enjoyable evening that was well received in the packed auditorium.

Ian Heggie's play is an amusing but slight piece of theatre that benefits from pushing the buttons of the local audience - much like watching 'Taggart' to spot the filming locations. And I have mixed feelings about one of the play's devices - the pronouncements of the local fortune teller on what lies in store for Glasgow of the future (our present). On one hand it's certainly effective at generating the laughs but it's just too easy - the scriptwriter's equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, and seems distinctly tagged on to the main plot. Although quite how these elements will go down when the show plays at Edinburgh's Traverse in December I'm not at all sure.

The other problem I have with the play is seemingly trivial but hugely significant - the name given to the Dalmellington's daughter who causes him so much fretting. Early on in the piece the character's deadpan delivery and morose disposition will evoke memories to those of a certain age of the late great Rikki Fulton's 'Reverend I M Jolly'. Naming the daughter 'Euphemia' (Jolly's wife's name) makes the comparisons inevitable, and while they can be sustained for a few minutes, over the course of an hour it can only compare unfavourably.

An entertaining enough evening but not one that will be featuring in our end of year highlights.

The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer runs at the Tron until Saturday 15th November and at the Traverse from 11th to 13th December.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

"Midsummer [A Play With Songs]" - November 2008

Traverse Theatre Company's "Midsummer [A Play With Songs]" is not a musical, let's get that out of the way right at the beginning. It's not. No I'm actually not being facetious. It does what it says on the tin; it's 'a play with songs'. David Greig and Gordon McIntyre have meshed together theatre with music in an almost cinematic way - the music forms part of the soundtrack of the story. It's not just an incidental but integral part of it but without the full on inate ridiculousness of a song and dance extravaganza.

A story of a chance encounter between Helena (Cora Bissett) and Bob (Matthew Pidgeon), and the resulting weekend spanning Midsummer 2008 in Edinburgh (although possibly an Edinburgh in a parallel universe as 24th June is a Saturday, not a Tuesday, in this one). Chock full of references to the city that is its setting we Weegies probably only got half of, however at no point did we feel like we were sitting in the middle of a private joke.

The story of Helen and Bob, and the characters that weave in and out of their weekend is filled with joy, absurdity and heartache. The fourth wall doesn't so much as come down, but is non-existant from the start as the audience becomes confidante to both characters. The interaction between those on stage and those watching is as important as what is happening to the two protaganists. With some lovely set pieces you're drawn into the tale that's unfolding in front of you. An ingenious set designed by Georgia McGuiness completes this visual feast. The devil is in the detail, with a programme that's supplied with a random vinyl record (ours was Don't Make My Brown Eyes Blue by Crystal Gayle), a code to download a couple of the songs from the show and a link to Medium Bob's Flikr Photostream. The only thing missing was one of Traverse's ubiquitous script books.

In an hour and 45 minutes Bissett and Pidgeon produce two excellent performances in demanding roles that require a huge amount of physical acting and the ability to sing and play guitar. Their performances and a clever script charm you into liking two people who with all their flaws you really shouldn't. I came out grinning, and will look back on the show with a warm glow similar to what "Venus As A Boy", "Molly Sweeney" and"Amada" have left.

Photo by Douglas Robertson. Used with permission.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Zero" - November 2008

Theatre Absolute & Warwick Arts Centre have come together to bring "Zero" by Chris O'Connell to the Citizens Circle Studio. Set in 2028 it takes place in Camp Zero - a detention centre for the interrogation of 'The Others' - perceived threats to the Global Economic Alliance. While the play does ask us to consider the ethical implications of torture, its real core is the impact that witnessing it has on camp translator Alex.

O'Connell's decision to move the setting on from the present day is a clever one. There is nothing here that could be called futuristic and the issues are very much of the present. But he enables us to jettison the baggage of our current conflicts and the simplicity of the fictional conflict provides little distraction.

As Alex, Stephen Hudson delivers a phenomenal performance as we see him deteriorate from someone very much in control to a man on the brink. Not an uncommon event in theatre, but what makes his performance so extraordinary is that O'Connell's script and Matt Aston's direction calls for scenes in different timeframes to be quickly intercut. Daniel Hoffman-Gill as army grunt Tom also handles the demands of the script well, although the character's journey is perhaps not so far as Alex's. It's largely the relationship between these two characters and the performances of the two actors that make the play work so well.

O'Connell's use of language is impressive including powerful moments when detainees are read their non-rights. There are also a number of effective set piece moments in here - particularly the DVD messages home and the impressively portrayed scenes where Demissie (Damian Lynch) is interrogated. But there are other aspects that didn't quite work for me such as the relationship between interrogator Helen and the commander (despite good performances from Kate Ambler & Adeel Akhtar).

As an 'issue' play it doesn't attempt to offer any answers, or even ask any new questions, but as a character study this is a forceful piece of theatre.

Zero has finished it's run at the Citz but moves on to the Tristan Bates Theatre in London from 11th to 29th November
Image by Andrew Moore used with permission

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Monday, November 03, 2008

"Something Wicked This Way Comes" - November 2008

The National Theatre of Scotland and Catherine Wheels have come together to produce Ray Bradbury's adaptation of his own novel, and with some very strong press reviews and an audience response at the curtain call to match, you'd expect to be reading a very positive post from us. I certainly expected to be writing one. But I'm genuinely sorry to report that this left us cold.

We had significant difficulties engaging with the show. It's. Just. So. Dreadfully. Slow. Elements which take up a good deal of stage time (such as the Lightning Rod Salesman and Most Beautiful Woman in the World) may be significant in the novel but here the pay-offs simply don't justify the time spent on them. Yet, unless I blinked and missed it the fate of Will's mother was never resolved but the boys seem to run happily home without further thought.

The other major difficulty is caused by the 'oversize' casting of the two young characters of Jim & Will (Patrick Mulvey & Michael Gray). By going with performers so far beyond the (almost) 14 years of the characters, combined with the wholesome fifties dialogue it's difficult not to find oneself thinking in terms of the Comic Strip's "Five Go Mad in Dorset". It just made it too hard to suspend disbelief in a coming-of-age story.

Further flaws include the failure to even attempt to reduce the visibility of the harness for the admittedly impressive aerial work by Jennifer Paterson; having the equally impressive Jonothan Campbell acting as counterbalance in full view of the audience at the side of the set (fascinating but hugely distracting); a closing song that seems dreadfully out of place; and live musicians that may as well have been recorded.

To be fair it did a very impressive job of keeping the attention of the large number of young people in the audience. Waldorf feels we needed to channel our inner child and then perhaps it would have worked better for us, but I'm not convinced. However, there are elements that worked - even for us. Andrew Clark gives a suitably Dark and dangerous performance while Graham Kent impresses as Will's father, as does Antony Eden as Cooger. The video/projection elements are wonderfully done and the carousel and mirror maze scenes are striking.

But, what do we know... the closest feeling I have had to seeing this show was our disappointment at "Peer Gynt" - which went on to win numerous awards.

Something Wicked This Way Comes has now completed its run.
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

"4.48 Psychosis" - October 2008

SweetScar in conjunction with Tramway and Cumbernauld Theatre have produced a very strong and challenging production of "4.48 Psychosis". The play tackles mental illness and suicide from the inside - the playwright, Sarah Kane, having had a very tragic and unsuccessful battle with depression.

With that in mind you're not going to have an enjoyable night at the theatre. However I doubt you'll see a more thought-provoking, or technically accomplished piece this year.

Normally we'd write a fuller review of this, but we feel that there is little we would be able to say without spoiling it too much. Part of the power of this production is the voyage into the unknown. So rather than compromise that we're going to hold off on posting our thoughts until after its run completes. If you've reached here by Googling for reviews for it before booking tickets - stop looking, just go.

We do strongly recommend it - and if you go you'll see why we wanted to keep you in the dark.

4.48 Psychosis completes is run at Cumbernauld Theatre on 1st November before moving to Tramway from 6 - 15 November

Fuller thoughts now published.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Like the Rain" - October 2008

This grouping of three short plays by Tennessee Williams is being performed in the Tron's studio space as a companion piece to his "Suddenly Last Summer" which is playing in the main house. Rather cleverly it isn't on at the same time and instead follows on after the main show finishes using the same cast (with a nice ticket offer for those booking for both shows). It's a great concept which allows audiences to choose how long they wish to make their evening and it's something I'd certainly like to see more of.

"Hello from Bertha" is an effective little piece of theatre where we witness the final days of ailing prostitute Bertha (Muireann Kelly) as she is 'looked after' by Goldie (Jill Riddiford) who is balancing doing what's best for Bertha with the need to move her on from the brothel if she can no longer bring in an income. While the performances are strong the play simply isn't hard hitting enough to land more than a glancing blow on the audience.

On the other hand, "This Property is Condemned" pulls no punches in it's tale of a young girl literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Clare Yuille's portrayal of Willie is amusing and distressing in equal measures as we learn how she has inherited the interest of the many men who had previously enjoyed the company of her older sister. As she plays childishly on the rails in a dirty party dress, wearing costume jewellery and carrying her doll, the contrast with her tales of her admirers makes for devastatingly uncomfortable viewing.

Sadly, "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen" concludes the evening on a rather unsatisfying note. Ross Stenhouse and Anita Vettesse give perfectly fine performances but the text seems thoroughly self indulgent and verges more towards poetry than anything dramatic or theatrical. It's also hampered by coming at a point where the seating is reaching the limits of remaining comfortable. If this had been dropped in favour of "A Perfect Analysis by a Parrot" which was performed as a curtain raiser to "Suddenly Last Summer" it would have finished off "Like the Rain" perfectly (although I guess they would have had to rename the collection!)

Steven Bain's soundscape and Malcolm Rogan's lighting design add brilliantly to Kirsty McCabe's design and Andy Arnold's direction. Despite the three distinct elements it does feel very much as one production, and while some parts are stronger than others, the whole is a definite success.

"Like The Rain" is part of Glasgay! and runs at the Tron until Saturday 8th November.

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"Suddenly Last Summer" - October 2008

Perhaps this wasn't the significant piece of social drama I was expecting from a Tennessee Williams play but anything it lacks in depth it makes up for in character. And the Tron Theatre Company's production has brought it to life in lavish fashion with two central performances that are electric.

The focus of the play is an informal family inquest into the death of Sebastian Venable, as his mother gets an account from his cousin Catharine who was present during his final days. However it quickly becomes clear that Mrs Venable doesn't want to hear what Catharine has to say.

As Sebastian's mother, Morag Stark gives a wonderfully vicious performance as the Matriarch left holding the family pursestrings (although her swipes with the cane need to be delivered with a great deal more conviction). Clare Yuille is equally impressive as Catharine giving her a balance of strength and vulnerability. In truth, there's little for the rest of the cast to work with but what there is, is done well.

Jessica Brettle's garden set is a wonder and is beautifully lit by Malcolm Rogan, but Steven Bain's soundscape was a little too prominent and proved rather distracting to me at times - although Waldorf thought it nicely atmospheric. The performances make for an entertaining production but the play's grotesque reveal is perhaps a little too "Tales of the Unexpected" and acts as a deterrent to giving the play much further consideration.

A nice touch was the inclusion as a curtain raiser of another short piece by Williams - "A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot" - which featured delightful performances by Muireann Kelly & Anita Vettesse. And the cast of the main show can also be seen in "Like the Rain" - three short Williams' plays staged in the Tron's studio theatre immediately following performances of "Suddenly Last Summer".

"Suddenly Last Summer" is part of Glasgay! and runs at the Tron until Saturday 8th November.
Image by Richard Campbell used with permission.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Locked In" - October 2008

We'd enjoyed playwright Fin Kennedy's work with Mulberry School for Girls at the Edinburgh Fringe, so when we saw that Half Moon were touring widely in Scotland with "Locked In" we had to book up. Even though the tagline of "a hip hop drama" might have made us more reluctant if we hadn't been familiar with Fin's other work.

Set almost entirely in their pirate radio station 'studio' on top of a tower block friends, DJ Riqi (Lee Hardy) and MC Blaze (Ashley J) broadcast to the nation (well, East London anyway). Their different backgrounds, cultures and religions initially seem to cause few problems to them, but we become aware of increasing pressures from outside as their own 'clicks' frown upon it. The addition of Zahida (Ambur Khan) to the mix is the catalyst that causes the cracks to surface.

By delivering a lot of the play in hip hop rhymes we learn a lot about all three characters very quickly and revealing as they verbally spar. Although it's not a music style that I particularly like, it's so effectively used to tell the story you find yourself caught up in it. It certainly doesn't prevent the story from being accessible, even to those who are perhaps a little older than it's main target audience. Close your eyes, take away the back beat and have the characters speak in Elizabethan English instead and you wouldn't bat an eyelid.

All three actors bring energy to their roles; delivering the sometimes complex lyrics/lines with both humour and attitude accompanied by an infectious soundscape. Half Moon have produced a very technically polished play, with everything hitting the mark. Even to replacing the traditional paper programme with a CD that includes the music that was the back beat to the performances.

An effectively told simple tale of the pressures that surround young people, especially in the inner cities. Highly topical given a summer news cycle that's been dominated with stories of gun and knife crime - particularly in London. Unfortunately the audience at Cumbernauld Theatre was dissapointingly small on a very wet and wild Saturday night, but it was certainly well received by those who had ventured out. It does deserve a larger audience, and hopefully will receive it as it continues it tour.

A highly enjoyable evening which rounded off a successful week of theatre-going.

"Locked In" continues its tour in Scotland - visiting Paisley, Glasgow, St Andrews, Stirling and Galloway before returning to England.

Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Used with permission.

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"Cockroach" - October 2008

For the first of the National Theatre of Scotland's short "Debuts" series of plays by new writers, Sam Holcroft has written an impressive piece of theatre - for the first three quarters at least. It's full of energy, humour and has a depth to it, but towards the end it suddenly decides it needs a more dramatic conclusion. Sometimes more is definitely less.

Set in a world of after school detentions the audience will be quickly taken back to the world of John Hughes' bratpack films of the 80's. And it's a comfortable place to be, both for audience and writer. The classroom antics ring true and the characters are quickly filled out to the extent that we're interested in the dynamics between them - although I'm not sure it extended to actually caring as much as it possibly needed to.

Slowly we realise that outside the classroom the country is in the grip of war and we watch as it gradually impacts on our characters. The biology revision sessions work well as the central framing device on which a lot of the play's focus hangs, thanks in part to an excellent performance by Meg Fraser as the teacher. The young cast all do well in portraying the frustrations and impulsiveness of teenagers with Ryan Fletcher's Davey and Helen Mallon's Leah particularly impressive.

Vicky Featherstone's direction is at times stunning - particularly the initial confusion as we enter the transformed Traverse 1. Incredibly she manages to make the 'open walled' classroom feel claustrophobic and oppressive at times, really adding to the tensions, while also allowing us to depart the room entirely for a wonderfully imagined scene between Mallon and Frances Ashman's Mmoma. The pacing works well and it held my attention throughout - although as a whole it felt longer than its 1 hour 50 minutes, and comfort-wise it would have benefited from an interval.

The issues and questions raised by the piece are intelligent ones and I felt it a shame that Holcroft wasn't quite brave enough to let them stand on their own. There's a point in the play about 90 minutes in where we have a speech about it being "a weak man's war" and this seemed a very natural place to end but instead we have a final 20 minutes of melodrama that adds little. And I'd have liked to see a little attention paid to what we have lost in previous wars - genetically and culturally.

But this was never short of entertaining and a great start to the "Debuts" season - the others now have a good deal to live up to.

Cockroach runs at the Traverse until Saturday 1st November.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Moonwalking"- October 2008

After missing the first few weeks of this season's "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" I finally made it along to Oran Mor for Nicola Wilson's "Moonwalking". And it serves as an object lesson that I need to make more of an effort - because I would hate to have missed this one. Taking the form of interlinked monologues, it is perfectly suited both to the venue and the timeslot.

The play focuses our attention on the significance of memory as we meet three characters who are suffering from damaged or damaging memories. Time frames seem fluid and there is a good deal of work to be done by the audience to coalesce the events and while the conclusion is clearly presented, I was still piecing the earlier chronology together as I headed back to work.

The cast gave three powerful performances that drew me in completely. William El-Gardi gives a performance full of passion and emotion as soldier Yusuf and drives home the impact his experiences have had on him and his views on the country he has fought for. But he also effectively portrays the family man Yusuf so wants to be. Louise Ludgate's dizzy housewife Hannah builds an instant rapport with the audience and it's through her that most of the advances in the narrative take place. As a contrast, Finlay Welsh's performance is wonderfully casual as door to door salesman Eric while allowing us an insight into his internal traumas.

While the direction didn't hamper the play, having the three characters mostly seated on stage made for a very static production and given the amount of walking the characters do, I was left thinking how much better it would have been on the catwalk style set up that Oran Mor often features. It would also have given the opportunity for the actors to really engage the audience directly. There were some technical difficulties prior to the show on Monday, so I'm unsure if the lighting effects didn't work or if they literally didn't work, but what we got was more a distraction than anything else.

This is an intense piece of theatre that, although having a light touch at times, has moments that do burn into the mind.

Moonwalking runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 25th October.
Image by Leslie Black used with permission

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Monday, October 20, 2008

"The Lesson" - October 2008

A quick trip into The Tron and its smaller, intimate space The Counting House for benchtours Production of The Lesson. At only an hour long Ionesco's play does make for a short evening out.

Starting off gently the tale of a Professor (Peter Clerke), his new young student (Kirstin McLean) and the Professor's over-protective maid (Catherine Gillard) we're beguiled into relaxing into what seems to be a gentle tale about the naivety and over-confidence of youth. However things quickly take a darker and more sinister turn.

According to Wikipedia (what did people do before it?), Ionesco is described as one of the founders of The Theatre of the Absurd along with Beckett and given our experience at "Waiting For Godot" we're probably not the best audience for it. The performances were all of a high standard with Peter Clerke delivering some fine verbal tongue twisters and Kirstin McLean providing some equally impressive physical acting. Gillard's jack-in-the-box maid is delightfully bizarre given her relatively short stage time. There are some lovely touches involving some complex mathematics and a final scene that rounds things up nicely.

However, for me "The Lesson" was like when you look at a surealist painting and you can admire the skill that went into its crafting, and you can see some of what the artist was trying to achieve but it's just a little too bizarre for you to be able to say that you like it.

The Lesson continues an extensive tour, visiting Cumbernauld, Aberdeen, Fortrose, Dornie, Rosehall and finishing in Adross. See benchtours website for full details.

Photo by marc marnie. Used with permission.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

"Six Acts of Love" - October 2008

It's a rare thing for a play to deliver a genuinely gut wrenching moment. Tron Theatre Company's "Six Acts of Love" delivers two of them.

Ioanna Anderson's play is nominally focused on fiftysomething Katherine as she copes with divorcing husband Tom and the deteriorating mental state of her mother Dorothy. But what quickly becomes clear, albeit without much subtlety, is that what we get are lots of 'stories' which feature Katherine on the periphery but are not really her story. Unfortunately what also quickly becomes clear is that the story we are interested in is that of Dorothy and her husband Fergus.

The main plot elements featuring Katherine didn't quite work for me - despite an excellent performance by Barbara Wilshere. The plot device of having to remarry Tom in order to get a proper divorce felt so absurd to me that it drained any meaning from what follows. And while I enjoyed Benny Young's portrayal of Tom I was left feeling that it may have been better had he been an off stage presence in the manner of their four absent sons.

Similarly the final scene's attempt to refocus on Katherine, despite being heavily signposted, comes across as awkward, forced and unnecessary. It also detracts from Clara Onyemere's wonderfully Mary Poppins-esque care assistant Delilah.

But these miss-steps can't take away from the heart of the play - a magnificent portrayal of the desperately sad final months of a once vibrant life, and the effects on those who care for them. I struggled a little to engage with Una McLean's Dorothy in the early stages of the play but her performance after the interval is absolutely haunting. As Fergus, Des Braiden is responsible for many of the play's lighter moments but his struggle between love and frustration is devastatingly real.

Andy Arnold's direction is simple but very effective and despite a run time over two hours it makes for compelling theatre throughout. My one misgiving is the decision not to provide captions of the time frames as indicated in the scriptbook (available for an excellent £3) as some of the transitions would have benefited from it.

While the whole may be less than perfect, the moments of perfection make this a theatrical experience that burns in the mind long afterwards - and leaves a toothmark or two on the bottom lip.

Six Acts of Love runs at the Tron until Saturday 11th October
Image by Douglas Robertson used with permission

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Don Juan" - September 2008

Much like its central character, the Citizens Theatre Company's "Don Juan" is visually impressive, opulently dressed, full of energy and charisma - and somewhat lacking in heart and soul. But the conceit of transporting present day PR guru John D back in time to become the legendary Don Juan ("Life On Mars" style) while juxtaposing language and imagery from the two periods makes for some thrilling moments of theatre.


Mark Springer is certainly charismatic enough as John D/Don Juan - particularly when breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. But he has so little actual stage time with Neve McIntosh's Donna Anna that it's difficult to see what exactly he offers her other than an alternative to her arranged marriage, and even harder to see why she appears to captivate him so readily. There's little to justify his apparent conversion to the path of true love.

The real stars of the evening are the comic duo of countryfolk Elisa and Carino who are played to perfection by Elspeth Brodie and Ross F Sutherland - although all the cast fully contribute to the production playing counterparts in both timeframes.

But the production definitely divided the audience on the night we attended and seemed to provoke a love/hate response. Part of that may well have been down to some failing to buy into the central conceit but I suspect it was also a divide between those willing be won over by appearance and those who require more depth. Waldorf was certainly less taken with it than I was.

High production values are clearly on display here and it definitely pays off with Jason Southgate's set design aided by some fabulous lighting by Stuart Jenkins (the Citz Blog has a nice display of images from the show). This is a striking visual feast of a production that thoroughly entertains but it may very quickly leave you wanting something more fulfilling.

Don Juan runs at the Citizens until Saturday 11th October
Image by Eamonn McGoldrick used with permission

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Amada" - September 2008

"Amada" at Cumbernauld Theatre was a late addition to our autumn plans, largely driven by me realising it was directed by Cora Bissett and featured Itxaso Moreno(Roam, Yarn). Even with this I couldn't convince Statler to come along. He couldn't get past the international aspects of this Arches Theatre Company production and the blurb on the promotional materials involving "emotional landscapes". And it's a pity he didn't, because it was one of the best productions I've seen all year.

Moreno, Alia Alzougbi (who we'd also seen in Yarn) and Richard Pyros perform marvelously in a beautifully constructed tale of the tragic events of a young girl's life,from her childhood through her marriage and eventual death. For a story that has sadness at its heart it's filled with humour and joy. You come out warmed by the tale, and its telling.

Bissett has brought together a variety of techniques, that could have overwhelmed if not done so artfully. Beautiful use of backlit silhouettes, puppetry and on-stage sound effects are woven together masterfully, with Nerea Bello and Galvarino Ceron-Carrasco providing wonderful colour and atmosphere through voice and guitar respectively.

Even an overly sensitive smoke alarm, triggered by an on stage candle, causing an unexpected interval and audience and performers a mid show trip to the car park (thankfully it was dry) couldn't spoil what was a truly memorable evening.

My only regret is we saw this so late in its run - it has one performance remaining on Tuesday 23 September at MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

The National Theatre of... where?

Bluedog commented on our post about Audience Bad Behaviour expressing his disappointment at the short run of "365" in Scotland before a much longer run in London. I'd drafted the post below back at the start of July but now that I see I'm possibly not alone in being concerned I feel more confident in raising the issue...

This post has been kind of bubbling under for a while and with our pre-Fringe gap keeping things quiet it's made its way to the surface. But first, let me be clear - I love what the National Theatre of Scotland has achieved in recent years. 'Roam', 'The Bacchae' and of course 'Black Watch' have given us truly memorable moments and I'm delighted some of these shows have been given the opportunity to showcase the NTS outside Scotland. It's just that recently, that balance between staging shows home and away seems a little uneven...

It was the announcement of next year's 'Be Near Me' that first made me raise an eyebrow. A co-production with the high profile Donmar Warehouse, adapted by and starring Iain McDairmid this should be a highlight of the coming season, but let's look at the schedule - 4 nights at The Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock followed by 7 weeks at the Donmar in London. To be fair there is the mention of a seven week "tour of the UK" following the run at the Donmar so hopefully this will include a return north of the border.

But it was enough to make me look a little closer at upcoming performances. The 2008 return of 'The Bacchae' commenced in Scotland for 7 dates split between Aberdeen and Inverness, but then transferred to New York for 12 days. Even last year's original production did 12 dates between Edinburgh and Glasgow followed by 14 at The Lyric in London. And this year's contribution to the Edinburgh International Festival - '365' - 4 nights in Inverness, 4 nights in Edinburgh and then it too is off to the Lyric for 18 days.

And this year's Edinburgh Fringe production raises a different version of what is essentially the same concern. 'Architecting' is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and New York theatre company The TEAM, and of course bringing International groups to Scotland is part of what the NTS should be about. But The TEAM are not new to Scotland and have twice featured at the Fringe in previous years. Wouldn't it be better to work with a group new to the Fringe - or match an international group with a resident Scottish company rather than with the NTS itself (which makes me feel like it's just some of the usual NTS 'names' getting to choose who they fancy working with next).

I appreciate that there may be commercial factors driving these decisions but am I really being unreasonable in expecting Scottish audiences to get a decent first crack at these shows?

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"Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim" - September 2008

Although we saw this at Cumbernauld Theatre on Thursday night it's taken me a little time to crystalise my thoughts on NLP Theatre's production of Des Dillon's play. Taking a look at the sectarian divide in the West of Scotland is a risky venture and I'm finding it difficult to separate out the success of the play in entertaining from its success at looking at the issue.

In terms of pure entertainment it certainly doesn't disappoint; delivering sharply targeted laughs at the expense of both lead characters and their respective 'traditions'. Featuring strong performances from Colin Little as Celtic Fan Tim and Scott Kyle's Rangers supporting Billy who find themselves sharing a police cell on the day of an Old Firm game while they wait for their wives to raise the money to pay their fines. James Miller is equally strong as their jailer whose own problems remind them that some things are more important than football or bigotry.

The script does a sterling job of highlighting the absurdities on both sides in an even handed manner but its success in generating laughs left me concerned that large elements of the audience were laughing with rather than at the characters. And with the wrong kind of audience I'd be a little concerned things may turn unpleasant. There is certainly a danger involved in what is essentially poking a wasps' nest with a stick.

While the message is clear that individuals can put aside their prejudices (even just for a while) it never quite gets across how damaging it can be, and the overwhelming sense of enjoyment that the piece provides adds to the sense that it's maybe all just a bit of banter. And with a feelgood ending, the play lacks the gut-punch that could have highlighted the consequences of unrestrained bigotry.

There isn't enough here to change peoples views - particularly those whose views most need changed - but it certainly holds up a mirror to the darker side of "Scottish" culture and for that it deserves to be applauded. It should also be applauded for bringing audiences into the theatre who wouldn't normally attend - and I'm sure many of them will have been sufficiently entertained that they will return. A final nice touch was the informal post-show Q&A with the cast and director which made for an enjoyable end to a very entertaining evening.

The show completed its 2008 tour in Glasgow and Irvine. and is underaking an extensive tour throughout Scotland in April/May 2009
Image used with permission

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